The Festival of Friendship consisted of a three-day visit to St. Cassian’s Retreat Centre in Kintbury. Over 60 people attended in total and the group consisted of asylum seekers and refugees who are part of the Stories of Hope and Home group as well as educators, chaplains and youth workers who have attended previous Festival of Encounter. Invited along too were family members and children as well as myself, interested in furthering my knowledge of asylum seekers and refugees and our country’s current cruel asylum system. The idea of the festival was to be a reunion; a gathering of past participants and their families and an opportunity to get together, to reconnect, catch up, to further share with one another and have some fun!
The festival’s theme this time was centred around hope. What does hope look like? Why do we have hope? What gives us hope and what keeps us hopeful? These were all questions I was thinking of when I first learnt about the theme.
After a delicious lunch on the Monday, Steph Neville, Founder and Project Manager for Stories of Hope and Home was joined by James Trewby, Columban Justice and Peace Education Worker, to welcome us before diving straight into an exciting introduction session where we were encouraged to talk to one another and introduce ourselves. After a short tea break Steph led a creative session encouraging thinking outside the box and challenging stereotypes.
Much chatter and laughter could be heard as people began to let down their barriers, conversing and sharing stories with one another over dinner in the evening which was served in the main hall.
Tuesday morning’s sessions began after breakfast and focussed more directly on the theme of hope; what hope looks like to us, how we stay hopeful and times when we’ve needed to be hopeful. Steph divided us all into small groups and asked us to read the poem ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ written by poet Emily Dickinson. As a group we were asked to share our thoughts on the poem, how the language used made us feel and what imagery the vocabulary evoked in each of us. Having reflected on this poem and its content, the groups then read ‘Hope is not a bird, Emily, it’s a Sewer Rat’ by Caitlin Seida which provided a very different image of hope to that of Emily’s poem. The groups were asked to critique the poem’s language and to explain which poem they preferred, and which one painted an image that best fit with their own experience and understanding of staying hopeful.
After a short break, Emma Birks, Campaigns Manager for Asylum Matters in the West Midlands gave a wonderful and very interesting presentation on the asylum system and the anti-refugee laws in the UK, touching upon refugee resettlement programmes, the Rwanda policy and the failings of the current asylum system. She encouraged the educators in attendance to take the information back to their places of work and to share details of the various campaigns and pledges in support of refugees and asylum seekers. Besides this, she inspired them to do their own research into other charities and organisations running similar campaigns to protect refugees and asylum seekers, especially those working in their local communities.
After a hearty lunch and fuelled for an afternoon of fun, the group ventured outside to the centre’s low ropes course. Split into mixed ability groups, the teams had to work together to successfully complete a series of challenging obstacles. It was wonderful to hear so much positivity and encouragement coming from the teams as team members grappled with ropes, ladders and various hurdles.
Following the afternoon’s adventures, there was time for discussion and experience sharing during a peaceful walk in the sunshine through the centre’s grounds whilst awaiting the evening’s eagerly anticipated BBQ. Over delicious food, more honest conversations were taking place in small groups around the courtyard. A wonderful sight to behold was the children happily dancing and singing together amongst the flowerbeds, hand in hand running to find frogs and other forms of life in the beautiful gardens.
With full bellies, the group made their way over to a quiet field where a bonfire had been set up and lit. Participants from different cultures and backgrounds took it in turns to sing, dance and lead entertaining games! Everyone was supportive and encouraging. By now the group had become friends, there was lots of praise for the young ones who got up to perform, equally for those who were a little more shy and reserved. There was no pressure, no judgement, no mocking. It really was a beautiful experience.
Having filled up on breakfast on the final morning, the group met for another session with Steph, in which she challenged the group to determine what hope is. What colour would hope be if it was a colour? What shape, size and texture would hope look like to us? Over the course of an hour we explored what hope would be if it was an animal, a type of weather, a food, an item of clothing, a building or an object. We were then asked to write down in our own words what hope is to us and what it wouldn’t be. These short sentences, we were told, would form part of a poetry project that the stories group were involved with. I thought this was a beautiful and creative way to capture the festival’s learning and to summarise our collective thoughts on the theme of hope which many of us view differently dependant on our lives; our past experiences, our aims and desires.
This really was a fantastic experience to be part of and I am grateful or the opportunity to have been involved. I was able to speak to many people, improve my understand of the asylum system and came away inspired to share my new knowledge and encourage others to campaign for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. My definition of hope is very different to that of some of the people I met. Hope to me looks extremely different to them, and unsurprisingly after the terrible journeys and experiences they have faced in fleeing persecution, war and violence. Coming away from the experience, one thing is clear in my mind, I hope for justice. I hope that the UK becomes more welcoming of those in pursuit of safety, our government policies become more sympathetic of their situations and their needs and our society’s attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees change for the better.
I hope that the educators and young people who take part in Columban Justice and Peace education programmes go on to put their faith into action for the common good!